How Not to Tackle Congestion

The Transport Politic’s Yonah Freemark today posted an article praising the anti-automobile policies of Paris’ Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and delivering what he seems to believe is an attack on congestion pricing.

Looking back, the results have been astonishing: Even with no direct financial reason to abandon driving, the city saw a 17% decrease in driving between 2002 and 2007, a trend that is continuing (according to the most recent information, it may now be 24%). In the same time period, travel on the regional rail network increased by 16%, by 8% on the Metro, and by 2% on buses in the city. Weekend traffic has seen the most significant gains. This has reduced further the already extremely low share of overall commutes made by car or motorcycle in the city: Just 16.3% in 2008. In the near suburbs, the equivalent statistic is 40.2%, though those areas are soon to be better connected by a system of tramways and bus-only routes (and eventually by a massive circumferential metro).

Paris’ accomplishment, though not as large in percentage change as London’s, was arguably more significant since it affected the entire city of 41 square miles, versus the original eight square miles of the London congestion zone (later roughly doubled).

Moreover, these statistics fly in the face of the commonly-cited idea that “congestion pricing is the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reduce traffic congestion,” to quote transportation policy experts David King, Michael Manville, and Donald Shoup. For cities truly concerned about finding ways to limit the number of cars traveling down the street, whatever the purpose, this example demonstrates that a concerted effort to get cars off the street by limiting the space available to them can be an effective technique.

Indeed, the results have been astonishing (and, I would argue, horrifying). Through a series of anti-car policies such as slashing the number of parking spaces, eliminating car lanes, decreasing speed limits, and funneling more tax revenue derived from drivers into expensive transit projects, Paris has seen sharp increases in transit, pedestrian, and bicycle travel and sharp decreases in personal auto use.

But Freemark seems to conflate congestion relief (which is what congestion pricing is supposed to do) with “traffic calming,” an obnoxious term used by planners that essentially means “slower, more difficult auto travel.” Generally, this means more congestion. But to those stuck in an authoritarian planning mindset, this is good news.

Congestion pricing seeks to align traffic patterns with economic order — when demand for scarce road space increases, price increases. Poof! We can get something approaching allocative efficiency. Traffic calming schemes such as the one in Paris — rather than allowing the invisible hand to wave its magic wand — seek to give drivers a big, extended middle finger. The fewer the cars the better — mobility and effective revenue capture be damned!

He does at least mention a report by Pierre Kopp, a noted French transportation economist, highly critical of the assumptions of Paris’ Socialist municipal planners. Of course, Freemark ignores the part about how the policies reduced traffic speeds and negatively impacted goods delivery (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually) and instead bleats out the anti-mobility zombie-mantra, “economic discussions focused on “mobility” fail to reflect the fact that inhabitants of neighborhoods with fewer cars benefit significantly in terms of quality of life.” I’m not sure what metrics he’s using, but it seems to me that arbitrary assessments of “quality of life” often fail to reflect the fact that mobility and the price of consumer goods significantly impact one’s quality of life.